The Many Uses of Black Lives Matter Plaza

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Residents gather on Black Lives Plaza. Photo: S. Payne

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, protests for Black lives swept across the nation. Black Lives Matter Plaza has since become a symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement. Although the plaza appears on the news routinely during the various social justice initiatives and protests that take place there, when cameras leave, the plaza transforms into a community space. 

The street is a renamed section of 16th Street NW between H and K Streets NW. It has been closed for several months. While protests have slowed, the plaza is nearly always bustling with activity. Tourists gather to take photos, locals gather for socially-distanced fellowship and local musicians fill the streets with drum beats.  

On one day in late September, long time DC resident Cedric Carter was at the plaza with more than 50 others. They were gathered together to do what he loves: music and hand dancing, the District’s official form of swing-like dance. Carter said because of the pandemic, for the last six months Washingtonians have not been able to gather to dance as they usually do inside recreation centers. The plaza has become a space where people can come together and enjoy the activities they enjoyed pre-pandemic activities in a safe way. 

“This is a historic landmark now, so we want to make sure that we, as black African American brothers and sisters, be at this (street), but not for protest,” Carter said. “We’re not here protesting. We’re here to encourage our people to come down to see what Black Lives Matter is. We’re not violent and we don’t plan on being violent. All we do just come down, we just enjoy each other’s company.”

Carter said the group does not regard the space as one for protests or violence, but one for fellowship with friends and family. 

“We got an opportunity because a two block radius has been shut down,” Carter said. “It’s an opportunity for everybody to come out and just have fellowship. You know, to take their mind off of some of the stuff that’s going on.”

Namely Brathwaite was in the city for a few days and said she wanted to make time to visit the plaza before heading back to New York.

“Just coming down here and even seeing all the artwork, it just makes me really feel proud,” Brathwaite said. “It’s just nice to know that it seems like it’s a collective group of people that just really support the movement. It’s not about being part of the organization as much as it is just being able to declare that our lives matter.”

Brathwaite echoed Carter’s sentiment saying the plaza is a space for positive activities, contrasting the art, music and gatherings with recent events, referencing the nearby White House and President Trump’s response to the civil unrest. 

“It’s positive, people are just out enjoying each other, still being responsible, still socially distancing,” Brathwaite said. “I just think that it’s fun, it feels like really good energy and it’s nice to be able to not think about some of the negativity that’s going on in our country.”

The Blackfinn Ameripub is one of many restaurants and businesses located at the intersection of Black Lives Matter Plaza. The street has been closed since June. Blackfinn sales and marketing manager Isabella Mansilla said the road closure impacted business, but not in a negative way. 

“If anything, the Black Lives Matter Plaza, has definitely brought new guests to our door,” Mansilla said. “We support what they stand for and what they have brought to the area, for sure.” 

Mansilla emphasized the restaurant’s support for the movement and encouraged residents to visit the downtown area, but cautioned that the public health crisis of COVID-19 is still ongoing. 

“When coming down to the area, definitely just be respectful of the rules and regulations that different businesses have to prevent the spread,” Mansilla said. 

Sarah Payne is a History and Neuroscience student at The University of Michigan interning with HillRag. She writes for and serves as an assistant news editor for Michigan’s student newspaper, The Michigan Daily. You can reach her at [email protected]